Thanks to my colleague Kristina G. for pointing out a recent BBC News Magazine online article entitled “Can You Love a Fake Piece of Art?” In the article, Melissa Hogenboom discusses the subject of forgeries, and questions why forgeries cannot be (or are not) appreciated as art in their own right. Cannot a forgery still be beautiful, be skillful and masterful, be moving?
She describes one forger, John Myatt, who, after serving prison time for his forgeries, now focuses on producing works in the style of famous artists of the past. He no longer tries to pass them off as genuine antiques, genuinely painted by Vermeer or Raphael, writing “genuine fake” on the back, but otherwise, we are told, his works are largely indistinguishable from as if they were newly discovered, previously unknown, “new” compositions by a great master of the past.
(The article does not address whether or not Myatt’s “genuine fakes” include any efforts at aging the painting, introducing crackalour or other effects to deceive the viewer into thinking the painting to be older than it truly is.)
Another forger described by Hogenboom is the Dutch painter Han van Meegeren, who was arrested and accused of having sold Dutch National Treasures to the Nazis. In fact, he claimed, he had given the Nazis forgeries. Ones he had painted himself. Van Meegeren’s work – like Myatt, new works, new compositions, perfectly in the style of as if they had been painted by Vermeer or another great master – has since come to be appreciated in its own right.
This, I suppose, is the main point of the article, and it reminds me of an exhibition organized some years ago by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, featuring works by Zhang Daqian, perhaps the greatest Chinese art forger of the 20th century. The Museum, along with many others throughout the West, had over the years acquired, either from Zhang in his capacity as collector or art dealer, or indirectly, numerous works Zhang painted to pass off as works by great masters of Chinese art history.
Right: A forgery by Zhang Daqian of Guan Tong’s 10th century “Drinking and singing at the foot of a precipitous mountain”; created between 1910 and 1957. Ink and colors on silk. Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Upon discovering that this work or that one was a forgery, the museum was for many years embarrassed, and hid the works away in storage. However, whether as an exhibition of Zhang’s great skill and the great beauty of his works (as art in their own right), or as an opportunity to raise questions about forgery, the Museum did finally in 2008 put together this show of Zhang’s beautiful, masterful works.
Of course, throughout Chinese art history (and in Japan, Korea, and elsewhere as well), copying and emulating the masters was a key element of anyone’s artistic training, and demonstrations of their skill. In almost any exhibition of traditional Chinese ink painting today, in works by artists of the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, you are almost guaranteed to see works said to be “in the style of…” This was a way of showing not only skill, but also deference and honor to an earlier master, as well as to show one’s association with that master’s lineage or school of thought. Calligraphy in the style of Wang Xizhi or Yan Zhenqing is a core element of the entire history of the calligraphic tradition, and paintings explicitly painted “in the style of” Ni Zan, Mi Fu, Wang Hui, or Huang Gongwang fill public and private collections across the world.
The key difference is that when ink painters painted “in the style of” the great masters of the Chinese tradition, they were not trying to pass their work off as having been genuinely painted by that master. And there was no commercial element to it – they were not trying to forge a master’s work in order to make money off of it. In fact, ideally & ideologically, commercialism was anathema to the Chinese literati ideal of the gentleman scholar who devotes his life to artistic and scholarly pursuits.
“Koto” (Kin), from an untitled series of the Four Accomplishments (Kinkishoga). Woodblock print. Suzuki Harushige 鈴木春重. Signed (Suzuki) Harunobu 春信. c. 1770-1771. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
In the commercial world of ukiyo-e woodblock prints in early modern Japan, there is the case of Suzuki Harushige (aka Shiba Kôkan). After the death of his master Suzuki Harunobu in 1770, Harushige continued to produce new print designs, passing them off as Harunobu’s in order to make money off the master’s name (not for personal profit, I don’t think, but rather for Harunobu’s studio). The question of “forgery” or of passing off works as being by one’s master, is perhaps more complicated in the world of ukiyo-e, where artists changed names constantly, often taking the name of their master; thus, just because something is signed “Kuniyoshi” or “Hiroshige” does not mean that a successor is trying to pass off the work as having been done by his master.
On a separate but somewhat related note, the BBC article touches upon a few very important points about the way we approach, and think about, art today. I saw this in the papers written by my undergraduate students in the Introduction to Art History course I TAed this past term. As Hogenboom writes, “a famous signature on a painting hugely influences how beautiful we think it is,” and we have certain notions today about what makes art, and what makes an artist. The artist as genius. The artist as celebrity. The artist as someone whose work is imbued with some greater, sacred or magical quality. And yet, this is very much a modern notion, that only first began to emerge during the Renaissance. This, and other modern Western assumptions about what does and does not constitute “art” or “great art,” need to be questioned and challenged. The World War II era forget Van Meegeren is said to have been “infuriated [that] a skill that would have made him famous in an earlier age was of no interest to anyone at a time when the world was interested in post-impressionism.” And this remains true today. In order to create brand-new compositions that could pass as Vermeers, Van Meegeren must have been an extremely masterful oil painter. His talents and skills at producing realistic depictions using perspective and lighting effects, chiaroscuro and all of that, and to do so while perfectly replicating the differing styles of a half dozen different masters, must have been incredible. And yet, in a world where so many people associate the word “art” by itself with the abstract and the avant-garde, and believe that art has traveled in a unidirectional path of progress, that true art, great art, is that made by the successors of the likes of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jackson Pollock, where does that leave the art of painting beautifully, masterfully, in oils? If a new Titian, a new Rembrandt, were to be born today, would we merely dismiss him, because his art is not conceptual enough, because his chosen media, style, and subject matter are too old, no matter how beautiful his works may be, no matter how masterful, how moving?
In the end, I think the key point about “forgeries” is the commercialism aspect. People talk about forgeries, and fakes, and immediately they have certain things in mind. Certain types of activities, and a certain shadiness to the entire endeavor. But, as numerous symposiums and published papers and books in recent years (and before) have addressed, the concept of “copying”, and the taboos we associate with it today, should not be assumed to apply equally to all times and places.
Emulating a master’s style, copying an old work, or creating a new work that could easily pass for having been painted by an old master, are all things that have taken place for centuries, and take place today, in different cultural contexts. In some cases, these activities are essential elements of the painting tradition; in others, they are appreciated for their skillfulness and beauty, and I would not be at all surprised if there are painters today who make a business of selling works in the style of so-and-so to clients who cannot afford to buy a genuine so-and-so. It’s a genuine ink painting, not a lithograph or a poster, and while it may not be a Rembrandt, aesthetically, it brings exactly the same style and sense to your living room.
It is only when a work is passed off as being genuinely by a great master of the past, for monetary profit (or in certain other similar situations, such as donating a piece to a museum), that I think we really need to talk about “forgery,” and to associate it with all the negative connotations that normally do come up when thinking about “forgeries,” “fakes,” and “copying.”